As the war in Ukraine moves into its next, possibly decisive phase, the big question is whether the Russian army will perform as disastrously as it did in the war’s first phase.
The fight for control of Donbas—Ukraine’s easternmost region, just across from Russia’s border—should be an easier go for Vladimir Putin and his generals than was their initial aim of capturing the entire country and ousting President Volodymyr Zelensky from Kyiv. Still, many thought the Russians would accomplish that feat in a few weeks or even days, too.
Instead, Russia’s invasion bogged down almost immediately, for three reasons: Ukrainian soldiers fought more fiercely and cleverly than had been anticipated; they were aided by European-supplied arms and U.S.-supplied intelligence information; and, perhaps above all, the Russian army turned out to be inept at offensive warfare.
As some noted at the time, this last factor shouldn’t have been so surprising. The Russian army—like the Soviet army before it—has always been lousy at maintaining long supply lines (hence the reports of tanks running out of fuel and troops running out of food). It has always had a top-down command structure, which forbids junior officers from taking the initiative (hence the calamitous breakdowns when things didn’t go exactly as planned and the killings of several Russian generals who had to rush to the frontlines to take control). And it had never carried out anything remotely as complex as this invasion, attempting to coordinate ground, air, and naval operations along axes running east, west, and south.
As Napoleon once said, “In warfare, morale is to materiel as is the ratio of three to one.” Ukrainians fighting to save their own homeland outmatched Russians invading strange territory who, in many cases, didn’t know what they were fighting for.
Besides that, the West had been supplying the Ukrainians with very good materiel. Lightweight, portable anti-armor missiles ambushed Russian tanks. Shoulder-fired Stinger missiles shot down Russian helicopters. U.S. agents supplied Ukrainian commanders with near-real-time intelligence on the location and vulnerabilities of Russian supply lines. Russia went into the war with a huge edge in firepower; but Ukraine’s morale, combined with crucial intel and weapons ideal for ambush tactics, more than outweighed that edge in actual combat.
Russian troops have now retreated from the area around Kyiv and are expected to regroup in Donbas, along with the troops and pro-Russia separatists fighting there already—even as Russian bombs, missiles, and artillery shells continue to pound Ukrainian towns and villages from afar, to keep at least some local troops locked in and to keep up the campaign of terror against the civilian population.
But can Russian officers learn the lessons of their failures and then adopt new tactics? Can the retreating Russian troops really regroup in any coherent way? Moscow’s military chiefs are also calling up reservists to beef up the ranks. Can these troops, having had little or no training, be integrated into active-duty units? The answer to all three questions: maybe, but unlikely.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research firm, says the reserves “are too small or too inept to make a difference in Donbas.” He adds that the troops redeploying from the area around Kyiv to Donbas are fatigued and demoralized. Together, these weaknesses leave the Russians far short of the 3-to-1 advantage they need to counter the Ukrainians, to use Napoleon’s rule of thumb.
Ukraine faces a challenge in the coming battle as well. Its army has also suffered losses, and it is running low on the European-supplied weapons and ammunition. Little is known and nothing has been leaked about how quickly the latest shipments of these weapons—the tanks, drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and the rest—are pouring into Ukraine and, from there, being transported to the eastern front. (The distance between Lviv and Donbas is 800 miles.) Before the main fight begins, there is likely to be a fight—involving attacks on roads, rail lines, and other supply routes and depots—over which side can get positioned for battle more quickly.
The fighting in Donbas has been going on for eight years, ever since Russia-backed militias declared a separatist war against Ukrainian authorities and soldiers. A few days before invading Ukraine this past February, Putin recognized the two districts of Donbas—Donetsk and Luhansk—to be independent republics. His initial rationale for invading was to protect Russian-speaking citizens in those districts from Ukrainian “genocide.” (More than 14,000 people have died in this war, even before the invasion.)
These past six weeks, even as the battles for Kyiv, Odessa, and other parts of Ukraine have raged on, the fighting has continued in Donbas—though now with Russian soldiers openly fighting alongside the separatist militias. (Putin has denied that Russian troops were ever in Donbas between 2014 and earlier this year.) Yet remarkably, the battle lines have barely shifted. Before the invasion, the two Donbas districts were roughly divided in two—the eastern sections occupied by pro-Russia separatists; the western halves controlled by Ukrainian soldiers. Since then, the Russian soldiers have pushed deeper into Donetsk, but the Ukrainians have held their positions in Luhansk. Finally, whereas many, perhaps a majority of eastern Ukrainians were friendly toward Russia before the invasion, many—having seen their homes destroyed and their neighbors killed—are hostile now.
No one can predict what will happen now. This could slog on as a ghastly war of attrition. Yet the longer it lasts, the more it may seem a defeat for Putin. The Russian president reportedly wants to eke out some sort of victory by May 9, known to all Russians as Victory Day, marking the date in 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered to Soviet forces in Berlin. It would have been a symbolic, as well as an actual, triumph for Putin to conquer (and, as he’s put it, to “denazify”) Ukraine by that same date. Now it’s unlikely he’ll be so quick to conquer Donbas—a relatively small oblast in Russia’s own backyard.